Sri Lanka’s peace: is dialogue between ethno-nationalism possible?

By Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda

The post-Geneva Talks debates highlight the difficulties in the path to negotiated peace in Sri Lanka. Primary among them is the increasing gulf that exists between Tamil nationalism as represented by the LTTE and Sinhalese nationalism of the JVP and JHU. Sri Lanka’s politics seem to polarise around these two nationalist axes. Dialogue among them, however unrealistic it may seem now, is crucial for negotiated peace in Sri Lanka. Political engagement among adversaries is helpful for accommodation through mutual transformation.

[Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda]

The Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist projects of the JVP, JHU and LTTE are mutually exclusivist. There is no constructive dialogue possible among them at present. In this relationship of mutual exclusion, there exists a peculiar logic for their co-existence too, in the sense that one nationalism nourishes and provides legitimacy to the other. This, of course, is the strange logic of identity politics. Unless Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms move away from the reactionary identity politics of excluding the other and re-locate themselves in democratic emancipatory politics, no meaningful engagement among nationalisms – Sinhalese, Tamil as well as Muslim – can conceivably take place.

The impossibility of dialogue among nationalisms is grounded in the old politics of ethnicity within which Sinhalese as well as Tamil nationalist projects in Sri Lanka operate. Many Sinhalese nationalists continue to believe in the political hegemony of the majority over ethnic and religious minorities. They see in the unitary and centralised nation-state the best model of political organisation of Sri Lankan society. Their conviction that political power in a democracy should be unevenly and hierarchically distributed among majority and minority communities has not gone through any significant change, even after two-and-half decades of ethno-political civil war. The enduring opposition to power-sharing, regional autonomy and federalism regularly articulated by Sinhalese nationalist parties, politicians, lawyers and intellectuals demonstrate that post-colonial Sinhalese nationalism has not grown up much since the 1950s. It remains stagnant in the old world of ethnic-majoritarian democracy. It can talk to minority political projects only from a position of strength, hegemony and domination, and not equality and parity.

The Tamil nationalist project is also stuck in time and space, being unable to democratise itself in any significant way. The separate state project, conceived in the late 1970s and executed by means of an armed insurgency from the early 1980s onwards, has now reached a historical turning point. It is a goal that cannot be achieved by military means alone. For fulfilment, it now requires democratic, political means and strategies. The Tamil nationalist insurgency for secession has only succeeded in establishing a huge, effective and oppressive military machine for the Tamil nation.

From the Tamil nationalist perspective, the LTTE through a protracted war has produced a status of military parity with the Sri Lankan state. It has also established structures of a militarised sub-national state. But, Tamil national struggle is not about military achievements alone. It has to deliver political emancipation in the form of independence or autonomy accompanied by political democracy, social justice and economic re-building. An undemocratic separate state or a sub-national state unit can produce only an illusion of political emancipation for the Tamil masses. The inability of the LTTE to reflect and represent democratic emancipatory impulses of Tamil society effectively and without delay reflects the limits to which the Tamil nationalist project has reached after an extremely costly armed struggle of over two decades.

The rise of Muslim ethno-nationalism has further highlighted the limits of Sinhalese as well as Tamil nationalisms. Nationalist projects of small ethnic communities demand power sharing at regional as well as non-territorial levels. Deepening of self-rule arrangements, or federalism within federalism, provides an option for meeting aspirations for political emancipation of regional and small minorities. But Sri Lanka’s two dominant nationalisms, Sinhalese and Tamil, are not yet mature enough to accommodate such possibilities.

Does this picture present a bleak future for Sri Lanka? Not necessarily. There have been trajectories of positive transformation that need to be consolidated and strengthened. The first is that leading sections of the Sinhalese political class have moved away from the visions and perspectives of extreme Sinhalese nationalism. The UNP and the SLFP, the latter backed by the Left parties, have come to accept negotiated political settlement accompanied by power-sharing and state reforms as the way out. Despite setbacks in the negotiation process, masses in Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim ethnic formations do not support war. A strong sense of political moderation is visible in the country even though the media does not always reflect it. There are objective conditions that have made war not an option either to defend the Sri Lankan state or achieve Tamil national rights, although there are some who ideologically argue that war is necessary and winnable. These are ground conditions on which a process of transformation towards negotiated peace with democracy can be built.

Such a process of transformation has been taking place in Sri Lanka, particularly in Tamil and Sinhalese societies, slowly yet noticeably. Even the JVP’s latest characterisation of Sri Lankan society as multi-ethnic and multi-cultural is a reflection of that change. What this process of transformation lacks is a political and ideological leadership, a leadership that can have a sustained political dialogue with JVP, the LTTE and the Muslim political parties concerning a shared political future for Sri Lanka. A political solution to the ethnic conflict is actually about re-constituting Sri Lankan state so that all communities and citizens can have a sense of shared belonging as equals and communities of equal political worth. Ethno-nationalisms that flourished during the two decades of war were not about shared, but separate political futures. In the post-CFA condition of relative peace, both Sinhalese and Tamil ethno-nationalisms find themselves at a historical turning point. Transition from relative peace to full-scale civil war is perhaps not easy. Actually, all nationalist projects in Sri Lanka now need to change in a context of transition from civil war to peace. If they don’t, they are likely to become irrelevant to the processes of transformation that are slowly taking place in their own social formations.

The relationship between peace and democracy in Sri Lanka’s Tamil society remains essentially contested. The LTTE’s position seems to be that peace should precede democracy. This vision of peace is linked to the goal of achieving the self-determination rights of the Tamil nation. Thus, in LTTE’s conceptualisation, the realisation of self-determination rights and peace is prior to democracy. The other approach is that peace should be in parallel with democracy.

The ‘peace with democracy’ approach further posits that peace without democracy is nothing but ‘totalitarian peace.’ In fact, the ‘totalitarian peace’ thesis is a direct critique of the LTTE’s position that peace has priority over democracy. There has not been a meeting between these two approaches, as they remain mutually antagonistic. Is there a way out from this debate about ‘democracy after peace’ vs. ‘democracy with peace’? Is there a third option in which goals of peace and democracy are posited as mutually reinforcing historical processes?

Before exploring a third option, let us note that it has become commonplace in the ideological and intellectual debates on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict to exclusively blame the LTTE for the absence of democracy, human rights and pluralism in the Tamil polity in particular, and in the North and East in general. There is no doubt at all that the LTTE, through its policies of militaristic authoritarianism, has done much damage to democratic possibilities in Sri Lanka’s Tamil society.

At the same time, it is crucially important to recognise that there are other forces too directly responsible for the erasure of space for democracy in the Tamil polity. The Indian and Sri Lankan states that prosecuted a war in Tamil society as well as the Tamil politico-military groups that have collaborated with the Indian and Sri Lankan states in the war cannot escape the responsibility for contributing to the ‘death’ of democracy in the North and East. The peculiarity of the political debate in Sri Lanka is that the culpability of all these ‘actors’ is seldom acknowledged.

The third option I suggest involves a dialogue among and within nationalisms in Sri Lanka for peace and democracy through political transformation. It begins with the understanding that claims made by both approaches with regard to peace and democracy are valid and that an agenda for peace and democracy should be an agenda for political transformation.

An agenda for transformation is important because peace and democracy are social goods, or conditions, that cannot be imposed on the Tamil polity either by the Sri Lankan state or the international state system. The conditions have to evolve within the Tamil society. But, as long as there is war, or the threat of war’s resumption, in the North and East, the space for democracy will also be absent, because peace is an essential precondition for transition to democracy. To put it in other words, since the war has militarised the Tamil polity, its de-militarization is the most important pre-condition to enable the political conditions for democracy to emerge. In short, there are no shortcuts to peace and democracy in Sri Lanka’s Tamil society. The path to peace and democracy is a transformative one.

Bu this transformation is a dialectical process. Tamil society alone, and by itself, cannot achieve political transformation for peace and democracy. Transformation of Tamil polity is a joint process with the transformation of Sinhalese polity. This is point that many champions of peace and democracy in Tamil society do not seem to comprehend at all. For some of them, it is a unilateral, external process, to be initiated and completed by the Sri Lankan state through a military victory over the LTTE. For some others, issues of peace and democracy are no more than an ideological weapon to deny the legitimacy of Tamil national struggle.

I argue that a reformist thrust in the Sinhalese society aimed at transforming the existing unitary state into a post-conflict federal state has the greatest potential to precipitate a reciprocal process of change towards peace and democracy in the Tamil polity. The logic that connects these two processes is quite simple. Only a concrete possibility of pluralistic reforming of the Sri Lankan state could provide the Tamil polity strong and effective political incentives to re-embrace the Sri Lankan state. At present, there is no such an ‘exit strategy’ for the Tamil nationalist project of secession. A reform thrust for pluralizing the state, leading to extensive regional autonomy with constitutionally entrenched groups rights, is certain to precipitate new and reformist political dynamics in Tamil society as well.

Such a process of change for reform is in fact underway in the Sinhalese society, although it has so far been happening in a slow pace. Leading sections of the Sinhalese ruling elite have now reached the position that federalizing the state is essential for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. However, there are two vital issues that limit the capacity of the Sinhalese ruling classes to move in this direction. The first is that their most advanced vision of power sharing, federalism falls short of the LTTE’s vision of federalism in terms of the depth of autonomy. This became quite clear during the debate on the LTTE’s proposals for an interim self-governing authority. This indeed is a case of thin and thick conceptualisation of autonomy.

The second issue is about the absence of a consensus across the Sinhalese political class for such reform. The absence of such a ruling class consensus and the power struggle between the UNP and SLFP has enabled the extremist Sinhalese nationalist forces to capture the political space. The recent mobilisation of hard-line Sinhalese nationalism has brought back the counter-reformist majoritarian nationalist agenda to the political debate.

The continuing political space for hard-line Sinhalese nationalism is facilitated to a great measure by the absence of an effective and continuing political engagement between the Sinhalese ruling class and the LTTE to bring the war to an end. The negotiations between the government and the LTTE have not led to a peace agreement as such. The uncertainties about the stability of the CFA and the possibility of the breakout of war have narrowed the space for the argument for a negotiated political settlement.

One can notice an interesting political dialectic at play in this regard. To transform the Tamil nationalist politics from secession and war to regional autonomy and peace, a strong state reformist drive in Sinhalese society is an essential precondition. At the same time, for the state reformist process in the Sinhalese polity to consolidate and move further forward, the threat of secession and the resumption of war from the LTTE need to be effectively diminished.

It is useful to note in this regard that the counter-reformist Sinhalese nationalist mobilisation of the JVP and JHU now defines itself primarily against the military threat from the LTTE. One way to address this problem is to continue the government-LTTE political engagement to bring about an early termination of the war and a consequent settlement agreement so that the threat of war and secession would be politically managed. The second is for a JVP-JHU-LTTE dialogue – a dialogue among the hard-line forces of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms.

A dialogue among hard-line ethno-nationalist forces? This may seem at once a virtual impossibility. It would perhaps be possible under new political conditions in which the threat of returning to war is no longer real. But, the threat of returning to war will not disappear overnight. In the absence of the possibility for a ‘no-war’ peace agreement between the government and the LTTE, a protracted period of no-war can best be possible only under long-term conditions of ceasefire.

The nurturing of the existing ceasefire, notwithstanding its imperfections and inadequacies, is thus a crucial and essential requirement for transformative peace through dialogue among nationalisms, even among hard-line nationalisms, under difficult conditions. War does not allow dialogue among competing ethno-nationalist actors. Peace, even imperfect, or relative peace, may. [Source:]

[TamilWeek, Apr 2, 2006] 

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